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Crack in I-40 bridge shuts down traffic between Tennessee, Arkansas

Bridge, as well as Mississippi River below, remained closed as of Thursday morning

Crack in I-40 bridge that connects Arkansas and Tennessee. (Photo: ARDOT)

Updated May 13, 2021, 2 p.m. ET.

The six-lane Interstate 40 bridge linking Arkansas and Tennessee was shut down Tuesday afternoon after authorities said they found a crack in the center span. As of early Thursday afternoon, the bridge was still closed in both directions, according to Tennessee and Arkansas road closure maps..

Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) Director Lorie Tudor told the Associated Press there was a “significant fracture” in one of two 900-foot horizontal steel beams that are crucial for the bridge’s integrity. 

“This fracture had the potential of becoming a catastrophic event that was prevented by our staff’s diligent effort in managing our bridge inspection program,” Tudor said.

ARDOT tweeted that it found the crack during a routine inspection of the bridge over the Mississippi River, connecting Memphis, Tennessee, to West Memphis, Arkansas. The department said it was working with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) to ensure the bridge, known as the Hernando de Soto Bridge, is safe before reopening.

TDOT said the crack was found in the bottom side of the bridge truss. ARDOT spokesman Dave Parker told the AP that drones were being used to take a closer look at the crack.

Traffic was backed up for miles in both directions because of the closure. Officials continue to reroute drivers to the 71-year-old Memphis-Arkansas Bridge that carries Interstate 55 into Memphis, about 3 miles south of the I-40 span.

Arkansas transportation officials said the crack did not appear in the last inspection of the bridge, which occurred in September 2020. In that report, the Federal Highway Administration said the now 48-year-old, 1.8-mile bridge checked out in fair condition overall, with all primary structure elements sound. Crews found only some minor cracks and chips in the overall structure. Its evaluation checked out “somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.”

However, height and width clearances for oversize vehicles were “basically intolerable, requiring high priority of corrective action,” according to the inspectors. Tennessee recommended “bridge deck replacement with only incidental widening.”

The reports also stated that an average of 35,000 vehicles a day crossed the Hernando de Soto Bridge in 2020, and 29% of them were trucks. Its traffic volume was expected to increase to 56,000 vehicles per day by 2040.

The Coast Guard has stopped all vessel traffic on the Mississippi River between mile markers 736 and 737. As of Wednesday afternoon, 229 barges and 16 other vessels were stuck in the queue. Many of them were likely carrying grains that were headed to the Gulf of Mexico for export.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in the week ending May 8, 633 barges moved down river destined for Gulf of Mexico export facilities. Many of these barges were loaded in areas north of Memphis.

Related: 5 states with most structurally deficient bridges

“The Coast Guard is currently working with the Arkansas Department of Transportation, Tennessee Department of Transportation and river industry stakeholders on this developing situation,” Port of Memphis Capt. Ryan Rhodes said in a Coast Guard bulletin.

“Based on the current information available, we have closed a portion of the Lower Mississippi River out of an abundance of caution,” Rhodes added. “The captain of the port is monitoring the situation and will continue to ensure the safety of the maritime environment and surrounding community.”

Coast Guard Lt. Mark Pipkin told FreightWaves it’s too early to pinpoint when that section of the river will reopen.

This is a developing situation. Please check the FreightWaves website for updates.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.